WASHINGTON — Republicans insisted they wanted to shut down the nation’s 3-year-old health care overhaul, not the government. They got the opposite, and now struggle to convince the public that responsibility for partial closure of the federal establishment lies with President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
There’s ample evidence otherwise, beginning with Speaker John Boehner’s refusal to permit the House to vote on Senate-passed legislation devoted solely to reopening the government.
In the days leading to the impasse, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he would do “everything and anything possible to defund Obamacare,” including a filibuster against legislation to prevent a partial closure of the federal government.
In the House, Rep. Jack Kingston told reporters his Georgia constituents would rather have a shutdown than Obamacare, and Rep. Tim Huelskamp added recently that in his Kansas district, “If you say government is going to shut down, they say, ‘OK, which part can we shut down?’”
Ironically, Republican leaders urged the rank and file not to link a defunding of Obamacare to federal spending for fear the unavoidable outcome would be a shutdown that would harm the party politically.
Yet Boehner, who survived a conservative-led attempt on his tenure in January, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who faces a primary challenge from a tea party-backed rival in Kentucky, were unable to prevail. Instead, they were steamrolled by Cruz, his allies in Congress and Heritage Action, Club for Growth, the Tea Party Express and other groups that have used the issue to raise funds.
The strategy in effect, Republicans negotiated exclusively with themselves in the days leading to the shutdown as they sought the demise of “Obamacare.”
First, they passed legislation demanding the health care law be defunded in exchange for a bill providing essential government funding.
When the Senate rejected that, they scaled back.
Instead, they sought a one-year delay in the law, combined with the permanent repeal of a tax on medical devices and creation of new barriers to contraceptive coverage for women purchasing insurance.
That, too, was torpedoed in the Senate.
The next GOP demand was for a one-year delay in the requirement for individuals to purchase coverage, along with a provision that would oblige the president, vice president and members of Congress and their aides to purchase insurance under the same system as the rest of the country without receiving the customary employer contribution from the government, for which they work. The principal impact of that is to raise the cost of insurance dramatically for thousands of congressional aides and political appointees of the administration.
That, too, fell in the Senate.
There have been ideological retrenchments, as well.
Despite their long-held positions against government mandates, House Republicans agreed beginning last week to leave in effect requirements in the health care law they have refused to embrace in the past. Among them is a requirement for insurers to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions and another to allow children up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ plans.
All are politically popular, although rarely mentioned by Republican lawmakers who say the country clamors for a total repeal of the law.
Despite pledging in the 2010 campaign to “repeal and replace” the law known as Obamacare, Republicans have yet to offer a comprehensive alternative. Efforts to create one have been hampered by opposition from conservatives to some of the mandates they tacitly agreed last week to leave in effect.
Conceding as much, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said that as a conservative, he had often found during Obama’s presidency that his choice was “between something bad or (something) horrible.”
Republican unity, so valuable in pushing to reduce spending in the past three years, shows signs of fraying.
Even before the shutdown began, some moderates said it was time to shift the fight against Obamacare to another arena and allow the government to remain open. A handful of conservatives, backed by outside groups, rebelled when GOP demands for changes in the law were scaled back.
“I feel like we’re retreating,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., while the conservative group Heritage Action said it opposed the last in a series of GOP maneuvers because it fell short of “fully defunding the president’s failed law.”
In the Senate, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., says routinely, “We’re in a box canyon,” and Sen. John McCain of Arizona observed, “We can’t win” when it comes to using a federal spending measure to squeeze out concessions on health care.
Ironically, Obama and Senate Democratic leaders have said repeatedly in recent days they are willing to negotiate changes in the health care law — on another day and another bill.
Even Democrats privately concede that a tax on medical devices isn’t likely to survive long, given that 79 members of the Senate backed its repeal on a nonbinding test vote last spring.
What survives is the expansion of the health care law that was passed in 2010, the opportunity for uninsured Americans to obtain private insurance at a cost oftentimes subsidized by the government.
EDITOR’S NOTE — David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.
An AP News Analysis